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Gun control could finally have its moment in Virginia

Democrats think gun control is shaping up to be a winning issue in the state’s November election.

Moms Demand Action line up during a rally at the State Capitol in Richmond, Virginia, Tuesday, July 9, 2019.
Steve Helber/AP

Gun control had already become a rising issue in Virginia after 12 people were killed in a mass shooting in Virginia Beach on May 31. A recent legislative breakdown over gun laws demonstrates how it could be a centerpiece of the state’s upcoming elections.

Virginia has a Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, but both houses of its legislature are narrowly controlled by Republicans, who have a 51-48 majority in the lower house and a one-seat advantage in the Senate.

Although Virginia has had a history of being gun-rights friendly — the state is home to the National Rifle Association — some Democrats believe gun control could be a winning issue in the state. But any action on guns in Virginia won’t happen until after voters go to the polls in November.

Candidates in tight races have already seized on the issue: In Virginia House of Delegates District 94, where NRA-backed Republican candidate David Yancey won after having his name drawn out of a bowl to break a tie with Democratic candidate Shelly Simonds, Simonds is trying again, on a platform that includes universal background checks, an extreme risk protective order, and a ban on high-capacity magazines.

Yancey, meanwhile, has proposed making it easier to for state law enforcement to prosecute illegal firearms sales. Simonds, though, is betting that Virginia voters want to go further than that, and Democrats are hoping she’s right.

A special session on gun violence was shut down before lawmakers could even talk about gun control legislature

All three Democratic candidates for Congress who flipped Virginia House seats in the 2018 midterm elections ran on gun control platforms, according to CNBC: Jennifer Wexton, Abigail Spanberger, and Elaine Luria.

The May 31 shooting, combined with legislative drama earlier this month, all but guaranteed the issue will be prominent as Virginia prepares for its state legislative elections this year.

Lawmakers assembled on July 9 for a special session Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam called to address the issue of gun violence. Lawmakers filed about 30 bills in response to the Virginia Beach shooting, including measures that would restrict gun use and make the punishment for violating gun laws stricter.

Virginia currently has some of the loosest gun laws in the country: The only significant gun control measure in place is a ban on gun sales to high-risk individuals and those convicted of domestic violence, according to the Washington Post. Northam put forward a package of eight proposals to tighten the state’s gun laws:

  • Background checks on all firearm sale
  • A ban on assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, bump stocks and silencers
  • Limiting purchases to one handgun every 30 days
  • Requiring stolen or lost firearms be reported within 24 hours
  • Creating a Extreme Risk Protective Order that would allow law enforcement to confiscate firearms from people deemed to be threats
  • A ban on firearms for those subject to final protective orders
  • A stricter punishment for people who give children access to a loaded, unsecured firearm
  • Allowing localities like the library or municipal buildings to create stricter firearm rules than state laws.

When the legislature convened, the GOP shut down the meeting in less than two hours. The group refused to address gun control, saying that not enough research had been conducted on the appropriate legislative direction prior to the “premature” session, and suggested Virginia do what it did after the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, when then-Gov. Tim Kaine, commissioned a blue-ribbon panel to study mental health and gun control. The legislature ultimately passed some of the panel’s recommendations.

Before adjourning the session, Republican leaders in both the House and Senate said that they would send bills submitted in July to the Virginia State Crime Commission to be studied, according to the Virginian-Pilot.

The commission will then release a report by mid-November, which will help them make “evidence-based” decisions. They also pledged not to vote on any measure until November 18 — about two weeks after the state’s election on November 5.

“It is shameful and disappointing that Republicans in the General Assembly refuse to do their jobs, and take immediate action to save lives,” Northam said in a statement afterward. “I expected better of them. Virginians expect better of them.”

A majority of Virginians support some form of gun control — it’s activists who are more protective of their Second Amendment rights

Virginia is the only state legislature that could flip its controlling party this upcoming off-year election. With only a slim 51-48 majority in the House and a 20-19 majority in the Senate, Republicans are facing a tight race. Democrats are hoping that they can energize their base around the issue of gun violence to finally gain control in both the House and Senate in more than 20 years.

Political strategist Joshua Ulibarri, who polled for the Virginia House Democratic Caucus in 2015 and 2017 elections, argued that candidates like Jennifer Boysko and John Bell were successful in those elections in part because of their strong gun control platforms.

It also helps that Virginia is now trending blue, Ulibarri added, although it’s not just because of outrage against President Donald Trump.

“A lot of its because the Republican Party in Virginia had been so extreme on so many issues — from guns to choice to health care — that the suburban districts that were red in nature had become blue over time as suburban, college-educated, Anglo women shifted away from Republicans and towards Democrats,” he said. “And at the same time, you have increased interest among people of color and then diversification in the electorate, that those three storms together have really pushed the state solidly blue.”

House Speaker Kirk Cox has already called Northam’s special session “an election-year stunt” to distract voters from a string of scandals in the Democratic Party: Northam had been accused of wearing blackface in his 1984 yearbook, causing his approval rate to drop from 59 to 40 percent; Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax was subsequently accused of sexual assault; and Attorney General Mark Herring also admitted to wearing blackface in the past.

There is a stark partisan divide on the issue: 82 percent of Democrats in the state favored gun control compared to 64 percent of Republicans who opposed it, according to a July survey released by the Wason Center for Public Policy. But there’s more bipartisan support for specific gun control measures, like the ones Northam had introduced during the special session.

76 percent of Republicans and 96 percent of Democrats supported making all gun sales subject to background checks, according to the survey. 65 percents of voters also said they supported a ban on assault weapons (49 percent for Republicans and 84 percent for Democrats).

In some of the districts expected to be most competitive, including Simonds and Yancey’s race, Democratic candidates are emphasizing their views on guns. Democratic candidate Dan Helmer is running in Virginia House of Delegates District 40, one of the rare spots of red left in Virginia’s DC suburbs — Republican Tim Hugo won by a mere 99 votes after a recount in 2017. The former Army veteran, who has been endorsed by gun control organization Giffords, recently appeared on a NowThis video to challenge Hugo’s corporate donors to spend their money on families of Virginia Beach victims and other victims of gun violence.

“It’s time to support commonsense measures that would save lives, from universal background checks to bans on dangerous weapons and accessories,” he said. “Corporate donors to Tim Hugo like Visa have been subsidizing his elections, ensuring our lives are more dangerous. Virginians want to be safe.”

Despite the enthusiasm around gun safety, Philip Van Cleave, the president of gun rights group Virginia Citizens Defense League, said gun rights advocates won’t be backing down. The growing debate around gun control has recently woken up several gun owners, Van Cleave said, which is “going to blow up in [Democrats’] faces.”

“It’s kind of like the sleeping majority that aren’t out there necessarily voting like they should, not really paying attention,” he said. “When you do stir them up and get them to the polls — watch out.”

It’s true that gun rights advocates have been historically more energized than gun control supporters, which is a phenomenon called the “intensity gap.” German Lopez writes for Vox:

Essentially, even though more Americans support gun control laws, those on the side opposing stricter measures have long been more passionate about the issue — more likely to make guns the one issue they vote on, more likely to call their representatives in Congress, and so on.

Gun control advocates, however, seem more fired up than ever following the Virginia Beach tragedy.

A preview of the showdown came at the State Capitol the day of the special session, where gun control activists in bright red “Moms Demand Action” shirts stood beside armed pro-gun protestors.

Jennifer Herrera, leader of the Virginia chapter of Moms Demand Action, said she is confident people will vote out lawmakers who don’t address gun violence, and her group is helping by knocking on doors on behalf of pro-gun control candidates. With every gun-related death, more people are realizing that gun control is simply “common sense,” she said, which is why people of all different backgrounds — including Republicans and gun owners — are joining her group to keep the state safe.

“It really solidifies the notion that a bullet doesn’t discriminate,” she said. “People are scared, and they want change.”